Today I’d like to look at three shows that aimed to create a roughly similar atmosphere, with varying levels of effectiveness. Serial Experiments Lain, Boogiepop Phantom, and Paranoia Agent all try to create a kind of creeping horror. Not jump scares, or sprays of gore, but a weird, oppressive feeling that keeps the watcher disoriented and in suspense. They share some storytelling and visual techniques in places, too: surreal imagery, washed-out color palettes, an emphasis on repetition and paranoia. All three have things to offer a viewer, but in my final judgment only Paranoia Agent, the late Satoshi Kon’s masterpiece, is ultimately successful as a single work. Let’s have a look!
This is another series that I encountered very early in my anime-watching career, at Vermillion. (The Carnegie Mellon University anime club.) It was very different than most of what I’d watched to date — dark, surreal, slow, and opaque as opposed to breezy, action-oriented shows like Slayers or Rurouni Kenshin. I remember my first reactions being mixed, but re-watch later helped show me what the show had done right and where it had gone wrong.
Our protagonist, Lain Iwakura, is a seemingly ordinary, socially disconnected girl in a slightly futuristic world (from 1998, which makes it the retro-future now) where all electronic means of communication have fused into a single digital network called the Wired. When Lain receives real-time text messages from a classmate during and after her suicide, claiming that she’s still alive on the Wired and has found God there, she gets drawn into the strange underworld of the network.
Giving a straightforward summary is almost impossible, because the show itself tells the story in a convoluted, achronological way. We’re constantly shown bizarre imagery (a shot of Lain staring at her fingers while smoke or steam jets out of them and forms strange patterns has stayed with me) but generally it’s not clear if what happens is real, a computer-induced fantasy, or ordinary dreams. Often Lain is not sure either — that’s part of the point, as the real and virtual worlds start to come together.
So, as far as it goes, Lain achieves part of its objectives — it is dark, disorienting, and surreal. Unfortunately, it falls down on other fronts. Philosophy is one of the hardest aspects of anime to judge as an American, because it often doesn’t fare well in translation; nevertheless, I feel comfortable saying that when a show devolves into long discussions of abstract concepts while nothing much is going on, it’s not the best use of a visual medium. (Whether the philosophy is comprehensible is another question entirely, but I tend to think not.)
More importantly, the show cheats on the premise of its mysteries. It shows us strange sights early on, and part of the allure is the hope of an intriguing explanation. Why does Lain behave so differently at the nightclub? Who are the strange guys with laser eyepieces who lurk behind her house, and why do they call themselves the Knights of the Eastern Calculus? And son on. But as you get to the end, the basic premise (the increasing intersection of virtual and physical reality) undermines everything you’ve already seen. All weirdness can be explained, but not in a satisfying way, and the viewer is forced to conclude that a lot of it was just “weird for the sake of weird”.
All in all, watching Lain is a strange, trippy experience, but ultimately not a satisfying one. It’s worth a look if you have a high tolerance for very slow plots and a hunger for didactic philosophy coupled with weird imagery, as in, for example, the Ghost in the Shell movie.
The Lain opening theme, however, is excellent!
On the surface, Boogiepop Phantom looks like a very similar show — dark, slow, philosophical, creepy. It shares a mood with Lain, but it succeeds in different ways. In Boogiepop, we find a city where a strange column of light in the night sky created strange effects, and rather than a single plot the show is a series of interconnected vignettes, drifting back and forth in time. Repetition is one of the central themes — we often see particular moments two or three times, from different vantage points, with new information upsetting the viewer’s past conclusions.
Like Lain, it’s visually striking, with weird imagery contrasted against a very dull “ordinary” world. They also make very effective use of a technique that might be called “color shock”, where they suddenly restore full color after desensitizing you with dulled sepia tones. (This technique is used to excellent effect in Mamoru Oshii’s strange live-action SF movie Avalon.) Boogiepop is focused on repetitive motifs, like butterflies, which carry different connotations when seen from different perspective.
At the level of individual episodes, the writing and plot are excellent, and the episodic characters are well-done. It’s only at the series level that things start to fall apart. A typical episode, someone has their life affected in a strange way by the column of light or its aftermath (people get mysterious powers, for example) and then one of the series “protagonists” intervenes. Initially we don’t spend much time with these protagonists, and I hoped things would get explained by the of the series, but they just … aren’t. The last few episodes are confusing in the extreme, introducing elements that we’ve never seen before and tying off the plot in ways that make little sense.
The cause of this is not mysterious. Much, possibly most, anime is adapted from another form, either a manga, a game, or a novel of some kind. I tend not to focus on it here because the originals are usually not translated and thus pretty inaccessible to non-Japanese speakers; I want my anime to work as an anime, just as a superhero movie should work even if you’ve never read a comic. Boogiepop Phantom adapts parts of two of the Boogiepop novels, and (presumably, as I haven’t read them) the elements that felt out-of-place to me would be familiar to readers of the series.
This is little help to befuddled Americans, however, which is a shame, as some of the individual episodes of the show stand up with the best of anime. Boogiepop Phantom is worth a look if you can enjoy the vignette stories without thinking too hard about how they fit together, but don’t expect the conclusion to make a lot of sense unless you do some legwork first. (Summaries and partial translations of some of the novels are available online, so it’s probably possible to cobble together enough of an understanding to watch the series as intended. If anyone does this, let me know how it goes.)
And so we come to Paranoia Agent, which escapes the traps of both Lain and Boogiepop. Like the latter, it’s mostly vignettes from different characters, touching obliquely on an overall plot; here, though, the overall plot makes sense (though it is weird) and is satisfactorily wrapped up in the end of the series. Like Lain, it emphasizes philosophy, but the ideas are embedded in the fabric of the show rather than told to us through voice-overs. It uses bizarre, surreal imagery, but it’s usually clear whether we’re seeing the real world or a person’s mad imaginings, and characters react accordingly.
The rough plot is that Sagi Tsukiko, a character designer, has created a pink cartoon dog named Maromi that has become extremely popular. Under pressure to repeat her success, she is on the verge of a nervous breakdown when she’s attacked by a mysterious bat-wielding adolescent. (I prefer “Shounen Bat”, the Japanese name for this person, to the US-translated “Lil’ Slugger”.) Shounen Bat goes on to attack others, and a pair of police officers are assigned to put a stop to his rampage, but he evades them with apparently supernatural ease.
That only conveys the barest beginning of what the show is about, though. Satoshi Kon, the director, is responsible for some of the best anime movies ever (Perfect Blue, Millenium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, Paprika) but I actually think this show gives him the widest scope for his talents. Each episode works in itself, often radically different in tone and style than the previous, and also ties in with the ongoing story. (Some of them have twists so clever I immediately re-watched them to catch the subtleties.) The continuing characters, especially the two cops, are carefully developed, and change dramatically over the arc of the story.
It’s also, crucially, funny. Paranoia Agent‘s occasionally irreverent tone ultimately serves it much better than the unrelentingly grim atmosphere of Boogiepop or the unending head-trip of Lain, because it provides a sense of contrast for the darker sections. The bursts of black humor or parody (there’s a wonderful video-game episode, and a stories-within-stories episode) make the creepiness of the main story all the stronger. This is the aspect, more than anything else, that makes this one of my favorite shows — it’s a creepy horror show, but it’s not just that by any means. I recommend Paranoia Agent to just about anyone; it’s an anime created by a master at the height of his craft.
Django Wexler is the author of fantasies The Thousand Names and The Forbidden Library. He graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with degrees in creative writing and computer science, and worked for the university in artificial intelligence research. Eventually he migrated to Microsoft in Seattle, where he now lives with two cats and a teetering mountain of books. When not watching anime, he wrangles computers, paints tiny soldiers, and plays games of all sorts.